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Voice acting reboot

Rec1 Narrative video games continue to explore new and better ways to tell us stories in vivid  environments with engaging gameplay. Technology plays a big role in all this, of course, and I've written here about the many ways game designers are leveraging procedural AI and other game engine approaches to make this happen.

But as my friend Iroquois Pliskin points out, innovation needn't be aimed exclusively at programming and technical improvements. Creativity can emerge from anywhere, aimed at anything. Simple human imagination can make all the difference, especially when applied to things that don't specifically rely on technology.

That's a good thing, because if there's one aspect of video games that could use an infusion of imagination, it's voice acting. Unlike other elements of game design, which have progressed measurably over the last 20+ years, voice acting remains mired in needlessly conventional, amateurish approaches to production. Developers too often accept shallow, 1-dimensional performances by actors as good enough for video games. Caricatures and stereotypes pass for characters, even when the writing transcends clichés, which isn't often.

Game writing may not often reach very high (and the nature of the medium may have something to do with that), but from an actor's point of view it doesn't matter; nor is it an excuse for poor acting. An actor must make a script come to life, regardless of its flaws or limitations. Believe me, good actors can often rescue a poor script with cleverness and imagination; but no amount of dramaturgical brilliance can salvage a play or film from bad actors. If you've seen Shakespeare butchered before your eyes, you know what I'm talking about.

If you want to hear first-rate voice actors elevate the toughest material of all - exposition - to something like lively drama, take a look at what Khary Payton (Drebin) and Debi Mae West (Meryl) achieve in Metal Gear Solid 4. Payton is saddled with endless streams of backstory and psycho-babble, nearly all of which he enlivens with humor, personality, and stylish characterization. West performs her own miracles. Here she is hauling a truck full of exposition in a scene with Snake.

Compare that to this chunk of awkwardness:

I honestly feel for the actors who must deliver such insipid dialogue, but they do themselves no favors here. Both fall prey to indicating; that is, playing the character in a way that tells the audience exactly what we are to think of him or her, instead of trusting the audience to discover these things for ourselves. In this case, the actor is the "cool detached RPG hero," and the actress is the "innocent young princess" - both from the RPG central casting department. I'm not saying these actors could have made this scene good; but they certainly could have avoided making it worse.

I spend most of my time teaching acting and directing to undergraduates, and I see them struggle with certain tendencies that limit their effectiveness and diminish their believability. These problems are common to young or inexperienced actors; but they can also arise with good actors who don't have time to adequately prepare for their roles. Perhaps not surprisingly, I see many of the same issues in video game voice acting. Aside from indicating, here are a few other common ailments:

Over-animated: Young actors often assume that acting means being larger than life. They make everything bigger than necessary to convey the character to the audience. This usually results in portrayals reduced to emotions like "nervous," "angry," or "excited." Emotions are adverbs. Actors can't play adverbs.

Forced formality: Actors sometimes try to charge their dialogue with weighty importance or magnitude. This usually results in an arch, fabricated style sure to provoke unintentional laughter. Again, no verbs, no acting. Two examples:

Johnny One-Note: Locking onto an inflection, a dialect, or a speech pattern to the exclusion of other meaningful choices narrows the actor's range and diminishes the character to a repetitive line reading machine. David Hayter's portrayal of Solid Snake has always troubled me in this regard. It seems to make no difference what he is saying: the lines are all delivered exactly the same.

Incompetence: Sometimes video games make fools out of people who have no business being actors. In my profession, we try very hard to give actors the tools they need to be stageworthy, even when they have very little experience. Apparently, some game developers simply don't see, or don't care, how intolerably bad these "performances" are. Things often hit rock bottom when localization issues are thrown into the mix.

Why do we accept such abysmally poor acting in narrative games? Have we grown accustomed to simply overlooking it? Or, after 30 years, have we come to see this kind of acting as a convention of the medium? Are video game characters like Snake and Marcus Fenix intended to be self-consciously iconic, with a purposeful lack of range or expressiveness? Does it even matter that these performances would be considered hopelessly incompetent outside their own medium? Perhaps voice actors in games are like divas in opera: perfectly suited to the requirements of their unique art forms, but a little silly when considered outside their natural habitats. I'd like to believe all this is true...but I don't. Frankly, it's just bad acting to me.

I believe good acting is good acting, whether it occurs on stage, in film, in a cartoon, or in a video game. It can be done well and quite professionally, as Mass Effect, Bioshock, GTA4, and the Half-Life series have proven. We may not wish to apply the same criteria to all actors across all media, but we ought not lower the bar for actors simply because they're portraying characters in video games. I think it's time for a voice acting reboot. If we want to advance this art form with sophisticated and imaginative storytelling, we need to insist on a process that enables good actors to properly do their jobs.

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